Oh, to live on Coral Island.
Or, more specifically, how satisfying it must be to be in one of Britain’s most innovative, creative, and distinct bands. Following 2021’s ‘Coral Island’, a (double!) concept album – which just so happened to be one of the most critically acclaimed of their two-decade plus career – with two further concept albums, in today’s 30-second society, belies the confidence of only the truly liberated.
But James Skelly and co are no fools either and indeed, are having their cake and eating it. While ‘Sea Of Mirrors’ is undergoing a bells and whistles campaign, ‘Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show’ (to give it its full moniker) will only be released physically. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, etc. It’s also the obvious sequel to the last record, interspersed once again with running commentary from The Great Muriarty (Grandad Skelly) as DJ across a sequence of murder ballads. At only 30 minutes it’s a slight thing, albeit consisting of 17 tracks.
As such, even if the concept wasn’t clear, there is no room for subtlety. Crisp opener ‘The Sinner’, detailing someone on the run and relocating from Dublin to Liverpool sets the scene while ‘Leave This Town’ reasserts the point, as does the dusky and dry ‘The Road Is Calling’. ‘Baby Face Nelson’ relays the tale of a bygone gangster, ‘Long Drive To The City’ explicitly evokes ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, etc.
It may sound repetitive, but such is The Coral’s musical proficiency that things never get stale, whether it’s appearance of Paul Molloy on lead vocals on ‘Baby Face Nelson’ – with affected, 1950s vocals – and Nick Power on ‘Hotel’ (with some sumptuous slide guitar) or the hypnotic finger-picked loop on ‘The Coral Island Killer’. Best of all is the appearance of actor John Simm, who’s asserted tones bring a gravitas and sense of dread on ‘Drifter’s Prayer’.
Meanwhile, ‘Sea Of Mirrors’ has a more convoluted concept: (broadly) that of the filming of a spaghetti western filmed on an unsatisfactory budget. But like it’s companion album, the concept enhances the experience but ignorance of it doesn’t affect it as one of The Coral’s strengths has always been the powerful imagery their music creates. Whether it’s the gentle, harmonious instrumental opener ‘The Actor And The Cardboard Cowboy’, which immediately recalls yellows sands and mountainous backdrops, or the subtle sense of scale that producer/string-arranger Sean O’Hagan brings to the title track, the band respect the listener’s intelligence while giving them a few pointers.
There’s little of the traditional Western grit here, rather a Laurel Canyon-esque serenity. ‘Child Of The Moon’ has a stark loneliness to it, while the pleasant gallop of ‘Cycles Of The Season’ is laden with heavenly, Beach Boys harmonies. Elsewhere, the verses of ‘Dream River’ are simplistic in their melody – almost a mantra – before it opens like a flower while ‘North Wind’ is creepier, like icicles dripping from a dank cave, with several movements over it’s 3.33 run time.
In promotion for the albums, James Skelly has hinted that another hiatus may be on the agenda and, in fairness, it would be churlish to decry The Coral for doing so, such has been the consistently high quality of their output. But to do at the top of their game (as they most assuredly are), would be a crying shame.
Sea Of Mirrors – 8/10
Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show – 7.5/10
Words: Richard Bowes